4 nutritional tips for kids with ADHD

By Matt Erickson
June 27, 2017

Nutritional Tips for Kids with ADHDAs of 2011, about 11 percent of U.S. children between the ages of 4 and 17 had been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – an increase of 42 percent from just eight years before, in 2003.

It’s a mystery why exactly the prevalence of ADHD has increased, and the causes of ADHD are complex and still largely unknown. But there is evidence that children’s ADHD symptoms can be related to the food they eat.

One study found that after a group of children with ADHD followed an elimination diet for five weeks, 64 percent of them experienced an improvement in symptoms. But kids with ADHD don’t need to follow a strict elimination diet to experience a beneficial effect, says Anna Esparham, MD, a pediatrician here in Integrative Medicine at the University of Kansas Physicians.

Dr. Esparham has published two reviews on integrative approaches to ADHD. Here are her nutritional tips for children with ADHD:

  1. Stay away from processed food. 

    Nutritional Tips for Kids with ADHD The first step is to embrace a diet rich in real, whole foods. This means minimizing intake of packaged, processed food. If something can sit on a shelf for a year or longer without going bad, it might not be so healthy for us. 

    Real, whole foods don’t come from a box, and they don’t have cartoon mascots or even brand names. We’re talking about fresh vegetables and fruit, meat, eggs, nuts, and seeds. 

    Whole foods are dense with nutrients. Our bodies need nutrients to function correctly – including the brain, which is particularly important for people with ADHD. A nutrient-packed diet can aid in brain metabolism, cognition, and development.

    Kids with ADHD don’t need to eliminate all packaged foods for the rest of their lives. But minimizing those foods, and focusing on nutrient-rich whole foods instead, is the best thing they can do for their developing minds.

  2. Cut down on sugar and refined carbohydrates. 

    Nutritional Tips for Kids with ADHD Sugar is particularly harmful for kids with ADHD. Research has found that sugar might dysregulate our levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Researchers have also found that people with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine. 

    This means kids with ADHD should keep added sugar to a minimum – no more than 6 teaspoons per day. (Added sugar means sugar that doesn’t occur naturally in whole foods, such as the sugar in fruit.) The average U.S. child consumes 19 teaspoons of added sugar per day. A single 12-ounce can of soda contains 9 or more teaspoons of added sugar.

    It’s also a good idea to reduce intake of refined carbohydrates such as white flour, as the body treats these much the same as sugar.

  3. Eat healthy fats! 

    Nutritional Tips for Kids with ADHD One thing kids with ADHD do not need to shy away from is fat – as long as it’s healthy fat. Some examples: olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, and avocados. 


    Fat from dairy products is good, too! In fact, full-fat dairy products are likely a better choice than products marketed as “low-fat” or “fat-free.” Low-fat dairy products, such as yogurt, often contain added sugar to make up for the lack of fat. Grass-fed butter and full-fat yogurt with less added sugar are better choices than lower-fat replacements.

    Healthy fats are beneficial for kids with ADHD because the nervous system, including the brain, is made up largely of fat. Healthy fat makes for a healthy brain and better-functioning neurotransmitters. This is especially true of omega-3 fats, which are also anti-inflammatory. These can be found in fatty fish such as salmon, egg yolks, and walnuts.

  4. Address potential food sensitivities. 

    Research suggests there might be some association between ADHD and celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Much more research needs to be done on this subject, as there are conflicting studies. But if a child with ADHD also experiences frequent gastrointestinal symptoms, it could be worth trying a gluten-free diet to see if symptoms improve. 

    Be careful, though: Many packaged products marketed as “gluten-free” are full of refined carbohydrates. Instead of replacing wheat-containing foods with those products, focus instead on a nutrient-rich whole-foods diet.

    The best way to identify food sensitivities is through a clinical elimination trial with the guidance of a trained physician and dietitian. Our integrative dietitians here in Integrative Medicine can help patients address food sensitivities, and they also use nutritional lab testing to develop individualized nutrition plans for their patients.

  5. BONUS TIP: Exercise!

    One last note for kids with ADHD: They should be sure to move around! Exercise improves dopamine function, so physical activity is good for the brain as well as the body, especially in people with ADHD.


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